A total of 18 human rights organizations called on authorities in a joint statement to acquit 46 defendants who appeared in court on Thursday for participating in a banned 2018 protest staged by the Saturday Mothers, a group of activists and relatives seeking the whereabouts of loved ones who disappeared while in police custody in Turkey in the 1990s, the Stockholm Center for Freedom reported.
According to the Bianet news website, the organizations issued a statement on Tuesday demanding that the authorities respect freedom of expression and the right to peaceful demonstration. “The Saturday mothers have been demonstrating peacefully since 1995,” the statement said. “During their 700th demonstration on August 25, 2018 the police used disproportionate and unnecessary force against them. The Saturday Mothers were only exercising their right to demonstrate, but they were beaten and forcibly detained.”
The signatories of the statement include Amnesty International, the P24 Independent Journalism Platform, Civil Rights Defenders and the Research Institute on Turkey.
An indictment drafted by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office seeks up to three years in prison for the 46 individuals, including human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and relatives of victims of enforced disappearances, for violating Law No. 2911 on Meetings and Demonstrations by “refusing to disperse despite warnings and the use of force.”
The statement said rather than launching an investigation into policemen who had used force against the demonstrators, the authorities pressed charges against the participants. “These charges are the latest example of increasing pressure on civil society. Among those who are being prosecuted are journalists, and activists,” it said.
According to the statement human rights organizations will be present in the courtroom at İstanbul’s Çağlayan Courthouse to observe the trial.
The first hearing took place at the İstanbul 33rd High Criminal Court in March. Among those who attended Thursday’s hearing were main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s İstanbul branch chair Canan Kaftancıoğlu and lawmakers Ali Şeker and Turan Aydoğan, in addition to Oya Ersoy, Züleyha Gülüm, Musa Piroğlu and Dilşat Kaya, MPs from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP), and independent deputy Ahmet Şık.
Emit Efe, from the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV), said in a press statement today that the trial intended to harass those people who were seeking justice. “We are here today to stand with the Saturday Mothers,” he said. “We condemn such attempts to silence their demand for justice.”
According to Maside Ocak, a member of the Saturday Mothers, those who were responsible for the disappearance and death of innocent people should stand trial and not them. “We will continue our demand for justice until each and every single one of us find out what happened to our loved ones,” she said.
The Saturday Mothers, who first gathered on May 27, 1995 in Galatasaray Square on İstanbul’s İstiklal Street and have continued meeting there every Saturday for a silent protest since then, has staged the longest-running protest Turkey has ever witnessed.
The vigils, which saw the participation of larger numbers of people on landmark dates such as the 500th and 600th weeks, had been held peacefully without any restrictions by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government until the 700th week.
Forty-seven individuals, including a minor, were briefly detained for participating in the 700th vigil on August 25, 2018, which was banned by the Beyoğlu district governor. The detentions were carried out after police officers told the large, peaceful crowd of protestors to disperse and intervened using excessive force including tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets against the women.
Two days after the incident, Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu justified the use of force by the police on the grounds that the mothers were “being exploited by terrorist organizations” that were “using the concept of motherhood to create victimization, masking terrorism and polarizing society.”
Since the 700th gathering, the group has been holding their demonstrations in front of the İHD’s İstanbul office. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they started to hold their vigils online last year.